The Holy Trinity
S. Holy Trinity.23 John 3:1-17
In 360 AD, after yet another council countenanced by Constantine’s sons had condemned the catholic faith, one church father remarked “The world woke, and groaned to find itself Arian” (“woke” in the modern sense of the word too ;-). Arius was the arch-heretic—a pastor of the church in Alexandria in the early 4th century who taught that only the Father is really God. The Son is just a demigod, and the Spirit even less than that, just a wil’ o’ the wisp. The council of Nicea, 325, condemned this teaching in no uncertain terms as unXn by confessing that Jesus is ομοουσιος “one substance” with the Father. In 381, at Constantinople, another (catholic!) council confessed the complete unity and equality of the Trinity extends to the Holy Spirit as well, adding what we know as the 3rd article to the Nicene Creed.
Yet, this Nicene faith existed more on paper in the 4th century than in practice. Athanasius (under whose name, in the 5th century, the creed we just confessed as ours circulated, yet was widely disparaged, confessed only by the West and rejected by the Eastern churches, still today) Athanasius, almost alone, defended, tirelessly, the full deity, equality, and unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And Athanasius spent over 17 of his 45 years as bishop of Alexandria hunted and hounded, exiled often for confessing and defending the faith of Nicea as the one, true, scriptural, catholic Faith (meanwhile, attacking and exposing the Arian enemies of the faith as dangerous wolves, robbers, haters of Christ). He is known to history today as “Athanasius contra mundum” (against the world). The path to heaven, as Jesus says, is a steep, difficult, mountain pass that few traverse. A lonely way, with many adversaries and obstacles along the way. But this is the way!
Of course, you think: “sure glad those lousy Arians are all gone; that we have nothing but real Athanasian-type Christians today!”. But, the more things change, the more they stay the same, I’m sorry to have to report.
Lately, Elijah-like, I’ve wondered if anyone else sees how Arian the world’s gone, again? Then I come across an article in our Ft. Wayne seminary journal by one Carl Beckwith (upon whom be peace) who points out that most of the Christian world, especially the “conservative evangelicals” are unapologetic Arians, still today—including several of the general editors of the ESV bible our Synod uses, mouthing the terminology of Nicea but denying its substance (see what I did there? “One substance”, denying the substance? OK, moving on…)
Beckwith has been an intellectual nomad, with a bio that may sound vaguely, suspiciously familiar: a standoffish Lutheran college, an Oxbridge stint, another at Yale, and (touching all the tony ecumenical bases) hanging with the trad-caths at Notre Dame studying the early church fathers like Athanasius and the Cappadocian fathers (as well as Luther and the later Nicea-loving reformers 😉
Beckwith’s just taken a position as professor at our Ft. Wayne seminary, restoring my shaky faith in academia, a little bit. 😉
He wrote in the article that, when he teaches the Trinity in a conservative, non-Lutheran setting, he always begins by asking his students to imagine: if the doctrine of the Trinity disappeared, was no longer part of orthodox Christianity, how would it affect their worship and daily life as Christians? Further questioning makes some uncomfortable as they realize very little changes for them! Which demonstrates that, for most of “Christendom”, the Trinity has been reduced to a mere phrase used occasionally to prove one’s orthodoxy, a shibboleth with no real substance (see what I did there, again?).
But, Beckwith continues: when he asks this question of the early church fathers and the Lutheran reformers, a very different response emerges. Without the Trinity, everything changes for them, and nothing recognizably Christian remains!
It is fashionable in academia, even “conservative” theological circles today, to insist the Trinity is something made-up by Neoplatonic philosophers posing as Christians and isn’t biblical, really, at all. Prominent “conservative evangelicals” like Wayne Grudem (and Joel Okamoto?) pay lip service to Nicea’s “one substance” phrase while denying that Jesus really is Yahweh, the One, True God, entirely, himself, but insist he’s unequal, “eternally subordinate” to the Father, always and evermore (and the Holy Spirit is a rung even further down the divine ladder!).
It’s a mad, Arian world!
But the great fathers of the 4th century: Athanasius, Hillary, Gregory Nyssa and Nazianzus, Basil, Augustine, all prove—from the holy scriptures, Old and New testaments alike—the Trinity is an essential Christian doctrine, without which the whole essence of Christian life, worship, and salvation is entirely lost.
And do you know what passages they turn to as central for the doctrine of the Trinity? Baptism passages!!!—both the Old Testament ones of the flood, the Red Sea, and the New Testament ones of Jesus’ Baptism (and ours in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit ;-). For them (and the Lutheran reformers) Baptism changes everything: illuminates, initiates us into the divine life of the Holy Trinity.
They confess each Divine Person is fully God, each doing what only God can do: the Father creating, the Son redeeming, the Spirit sanctifying And yet, they see that each person—while entirely God by himself—never works by himself, apart from the Trinity. Crucially, they see: if Jesus isn’t fully God, neither is his work!
Jesus says, in a much debated passage, John 5:19: that he does nothing from himself, but only what he sees and has from the Father. Because Jesus is eternally begotten from the Father, so everything he is and does comes from and glorifies him, just as in John 16:13 the Spirit is from the Father and the Son and takes from Jesus to sanctify us.
So, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work inseparably as they are, according to their indivisible nature, power, and will—none greater or less than another, none independent of the other. Absolutely One, yet distinctly Three. If you think you’ve grasped IT, rationally, well; you don’t believe or get the substance of IT, yet (see, I did the “substance” thing, again!).
Where does God grasp us, make us new? In Baptism!!! In our Gospel today, Nicodemus doesn’t get Jesus, because he doesn’t get the Trinity, because he doesn’t get baptized. No one gets Jesus, no one sees his Kingdom, Life, Power without water, Word, Spirit immersing us in IT. Baptism is the Flood, the River that washes us into Christ’s Kingdom, drowning the old, raising us up new, illuminated, light, not dark or dense. As Luther says: “Baptism isn’t based on your faith; rather, your faith is built, based on, Baptism!!!”
Baptism bestows “victory over death and devil, forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Spirit with his gifts” (LC IV:41). For Luther, as long as sin, death, and devil oppress you, you have need of your Baptism and the saving work of the Trinity. Here is true worship, real illumination, life, salvation.
The world always hankers after bigness, pride, self-exaltation, and gratification; which is to say: it is and remains mostly Arian. But there’s a way out…
Gregory of Nazianzus told his catechumens before Baptism, “This I give you as a companion and protector for all your life, the one divinity and power, found in unity in the three, and gathering together the three as distinct; neither uneven in essences or natures, nor increased or decreased by superiorities or inferiorities; from every perspective equal, from every perspective the same… each God by himself; as the Father so the Son, as the Son so the Holy Spirit.”
Gregory, Athanasius, Luther, Nicodemus, you, I get caught up by, immersed in the Holy Trinity… by Baptism!!! So, sink down, drown; and God will raise you up new, by water, Word, Spirit, crying: Holy, Holy, Holy!!! In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.